Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Beth Kephart talks about Small Damages, Spain, and so much more

I don't remember when I first met Beth Kephart, but what I do remember is the immediate warmth I felt. This is a woman you'd want to live next door to because you know she'd always be there for you with a plate of pie and a cup of tea and conversation.  She's not just a wonderful writer, she also has a heart the size of Jupiter and I'm honored to consider her my friend. I wanted to celebrate the publication of her extraordinary new novel, Small Damages, and I'm jazzed to have her here on my blog. A million hugs, Beth, and a thank-you! For the blog and for everything.

You are now the diamond in the sky. A rave NYT review, praise everywhere, and rightfully so, for a novel that is as luminously moving as it is smart.  You and I have talked about the struggle to be published well, to find the right home with a publisher, to feel appreciated, and the absolute joy when that happens. So tell us about it, the struggle and the joy. Did you know when you were writing this novel that it was somehow different in some way, and that you were going to shine?

You and I have talked, first of all, because you are such an incredibly generous and open writer who yields so much to others. So that first.

Second, Small Damages is my fourteenth book.  It arrives after five memoirs (in which life’s big questions were examined, as opposed to Epic Personal Tragedies), an uncategorizable foray into poetry and history, a twisted corporate America fairytale (which became corporate Everywhere fairytale after a dozen translations), and several young adult novels that have primarily been read by adults.  In short, I have not been an easy writer to peg, my work hasn’t always been easy to shelf, and I fear I’ve been more of a conundrum than anything else.  I have not made for easy publishing fodder.

Through all these years I have been working on Small Damages, a book inspired by my travels to Spain, where my brother-in-law lived for a long time.  Place is story to me.  Seville and its rural outposts was a world I could not leave in my imagination.  I read, I thought, I dug deep into history, I took photographs, I interviewed people, and I wrote eighty drafts of a novel that kept changing its foreground, but never its background.  A few times this book seemed close to finding a publishing home, but then things would ebb away.  It found the home it did find because Philomel’s Jill Santopolo, with whom I had worked at Harper, had slipped a copy of Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray to me at the ALA a few years ago (the same ALA when I read Pictures of You in my hotel room!); the book had been acquired and edited by Jill’s Philomel colleague Tamra Tuller.  “This book made me cry,” she said, “and I think it will move you, too.” 

Well, I thanked her, put the book in a safe place, turned to talk to someone else, and when I looked back the book was gone.   Jill kindly sent me another copy, and I read at once.  Here was a smart book, a literary book, an important book, an unusual book.  I was in love, sight unseen, with anyone who would acquire a book like that.  I sent Tamra an email with Small Damages attached.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Philomel is exquisite.  At Philomel I have a home.  There I have never felt like a fringe writer, a secondary writer, a marginal, will-she-please-fit-a-category, we’ll-get-to-you-when-we-get-to-you writer.  Michael Green, Philomel’s president, is a most generous person, and correspondent.  Tamra—beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, embracing—approached the editing of this book, the design of its cover, and the preparation of it for the world with the greatest care, and in the process we became great friends.  Jessica Shoffel, a wildly wonderful and innovative publicist, wrote me a note I’ll never forget after she read the book and her devotion to getting the word out has been unflagging, sensational.  The sales team got in touch a long time ago and has stayed in touch.  And on and on.  

But no, I never knew I would shine.  I don’t think of myself as a diamond or a star.  I never think in those terms.  I just keep writing my heart out.  And when you are collaborating with a house like Philomel, when you are given room, when your questions are answered, when you are given a chance, there are possibilities.

 What I loved so much about Small Damages was how unexpected it was. Kenzie weighs the future with her baby not in America, but in Spain, where she is a cook's assistant. Where did that idea spark? What was the research like?

I have the privilege of knowing some incredibly wonderful young women who found themselves pregnant at a very early or uncertain time in their lives.  They have raised exceptional children.  They have had to persevere with great courage.  I always knew there’d be a cook, there would be gypsies, there would be heat and bulls.  Kenzie entered this story late. I fell in love with her.  I fell in love with writing, again, about maternal love.
What's your writing life like now?

For the first time in probably twenty years I am not writing.  I just completed three books, and they will appear over the next eighteen months—a book for another fantastic Penguin imprint (Gotham) called Handling the Truth (about the making and consequences of memoir, the subject I teach at the University of Pennsylvania), a boy-centric YA historical novel for Philadelphians called Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (featuring Eastern State Penitentiary, Baldwin Locomotive Works, and my favorite 19th century city characters), and another novel for Tamra, which takes place in 1983 Berlin.  I need to dream, to stand, to walk, to see, to not hurry toward anything new.

 What's obsessing you now and why?

Living well, living quietly, teaching, my family, the garden, the rain that does and does not fall, the 100 books that sit in stacks to be read, and of course the corporate work, which is part of every day, the tock in the clock of my existence.
 What question didn't I ask that I should have?

My goodness, if you asked me anything more, can you imagine how long this would be!!??  I’m just grateful to be here, Caroline, and grateful for you.


  1. Can I be your neighbor, Caroline? A million trillion zillion thanksfor this. I loved answering your questions, loved being given the chance, love being here. And I apologize to the grammar gods everywhere for misspelling "shelve" and for not seeing that until this very moment. What would my elementary school teachers think of me now, were they to see this! :)

  2. What a wonderful interview :) Your personality comes shining through!

    I never realized how important it is for author’s to find a publisher who “fits” their style. Reading about your experiences over the years, and now in your discussion of Philomel, I can definitely see how publishing houses differ and the ways that can impact your relationships with them, and the way your work is perceived.

    I’m so glad you’ve found such a good fit!

  3. I love reading these interviews with Beth. She's such a kind-hearted soul. I love that her life has a passion and a purpose and it stems from her family...and her family of characters and settings. I am eager to read Small Damages, but I am waiting for my day off from the day job to sit and absorb all of Beth's words without rushing.

  4. Great interview. Loved the insights about the publisher.

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